The Amazon rainforest is an incredible place. Its plant ecosystem stores 17% of the world’s carbon which helps regulate the earth’s temperature. The region is often referred to as “the lungs of the earth” as it produces substantial amounts of oxygen, supporting countless lifeforms. Spanning a huge chunk of South America, it is home to a staggering number of animal and plant species, with 427 mammals and 40,000 plant species discovered to date, and that’s just scratching the surface.
And yet this indispensable region of planet earth is under continued threat. Its animal and plant life is increasingly pushed towards endangerment, and the indigenous peoples mistreated by failed government policies and unscrupulous private companies bleeding the area dry of its finite resources. Furthermore, the ecological and climatic damage which these changes are bringing about is already having devastating global implications.
The Demise of the Amazon
The Amazon rainforest is now capturing one third less of the carbon in our atmosphere than it did just ten years ago; that amounts to one billion tonnes of carbon dioxide now freely circulating in the air. This increased carbon load on the climate will grow annually, accelerating changes in the climate and weather patterns. The entire forest lost over 760,000 sq km by 2014, and by 2025 some studies have estimated that 40% of the rainforest will be destroyed.
But what’s behind this destruction? With so many factors in play, just what are the most pressing threats? By answering these questions, we can better provide solutions to help the region recover from what could soon be an irreversible decline.
1. Soy Farming & Cattle Ranching
While soy is often seen as a healthy alternative to animal products such as milk, it is overwhelmingly grown for use in the meat industry. Soy is farmed in order to provide feed for livestock; direct human consumption of the plant accounts for just 6% of all soy use.
What does this have to do with the Amazon rainforest?
Soy farming results directly in devastating practices such as deforestation. Huge tracks of land are systematically cleared of trees and local ecology, then replaced with a soy crop. Farmers then use this area until the soil has been drained of its nutrients and can no longer yield another crop. They then move on and destroy another section of forest in pursuit of fertile farmland.
This process has been exacerbated by market demands for cheap animal based foods, made out of livestock raised on soy because it is inexpensive to grow, and by increased meat consumption in countries such as China. This has created, not just an explosion of soy farming, but cattle ranching throughout South America, which also decimates plant life. This combination of livestock and soy accounts for an incredible 80% of all deforestation. As long as this trend continues, more and more of the Amazon rainforest will disappear.
2. Hydro-Electric Power Dams
Developing countries are rightfully trying to find ways of producing clean, affordable electricity for their growing populations. One of the most effective ways to do this is to use hydroelectricity, which produces immense amounts of electricity by harnessing power generated by falling water. While this can be an excellent form of renewable energy, in areas such as the Amazon, the effects can be distressing.
In order to meet power demands, many South American countries have already green-lit hundreds of new hydro-dams throughout the Amazon basin. A recent study has estimated that this could submerge a substantial amount of the rainforest under water, pushing numerous plant and animal species towards extinction in the process.
3. Pandemic among the People of the Amazon
While the destruction of the Amazonian environment will have huge implications for the entire planet for years to come, there are people living in the region who are closely knit to this land. Many tribes indigenous to the region have already been negatively impacted by increased industrial activity within the rainforest, restricted to smaller areas of land and exposed to modern illnesses.
Modern disease has become a huge danger to the estimated 67 tribes of indigenous people who live within the Amazon forest. By having no previous contact with the industrial world, the Amazonian tribes have built up little immunity or resistance to common illnesses such as influenza. Exposure to these diseases, which they are not accustomed to fighting off, is increasing mortality rates. There’s growing concern that modern illnesses may cause a pandemic in the region, wiping out large numbers in one foul swoop.
There are numerous resources hidden deep underground, beneath the Amazon rainforest, and it hasn’t taken long for mining companies to exploit this. The Amazon basin contains rich pockets of nickel, copper, tin, manganese, iron ore, gold, and other valuable minerals, which has resulted in an estimated $27 billion being invested in new Amazon mining projects by 2016.
The impact of mining is substantial, especially during the extraction of gold. This involves using high concentrations of mercury, which can seep into the local environment and poison indigenous tribes and wildlife. Mining also contributes to deforestation as mines cut down trees to create charcoal that will fuel iron plants and other operations.
5. Logging and Infrastructure
Logging is the most obvious threat to the Amazon rainforest. More specifically, illegal, non-sustainable logging is causing massive damage to the local ecosystem. A need for wood products and materials in construction drives the continued expansion of logging activities throughout the entire region. While huge efforts have been made to counter illegal logging, in 2013 it was reported that deforestation had increased by a third.
Regardless of whether it is mining, logging, or farming, there is a shared problem with all three activities: infrastructure. All industrial activities in the forest require the building of roads. The associated construction of every 40 meters of road claims 600 sq km of the Amazon forest. This level of destruction cannot continue unabated, but for as long as these trends are allowed to progress, the Amazon rainforest will decrease in size with countless species wiped out in the process, and the world’s climate changed irrevocably.
6. Oil Development
Oil drilling in the Amazon is not only a primary cause of deforestation, but also causes widespread soil and air pollution, indigenous conflict, biodiversity loss, and the displacement of local populations.
Oil development in the Amazon is still on the rise and recently there has been outrage against the Ecuadorian government for permitting oil exploration in the Yasuni, one of the world’s most ecologically diverse places. In Peru, a serious political struggle is underway to prevent drilling in one Peru’s biggest oil blocks. Companies like Texaco, Chevron and Occidental petroleum have been defending themselves in court for decades to evade penalties for trashing the Amazon and causing widespread public health crises, and Chevron made it in the news earlier in 2015 when a consultant was caught on video falsifying evidence for a court case.
China has lately been on the forefront of oil development in the Amazon, and there unprecedented investment in Amazonian oil is causing sone of the largest oil booms the planet has ever seen, and the rainforest is quickly being criss-crossed with pipelines. This threat to the Amazon is expected to grow significantly over the coming decades.
Alternative Approaches for the Future
It is a challenge to create new approaches to industry and development to help protect the region, especially farming techniques that offset the impact of cattle ranching and soy farming. Here’s an example how cattle farmers in the municipality of Sao Felix do Xingu, which has had the biggest drop in deforestation in the country, have learned to produce meat in a more eco-friendly way.
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